- Associated Press - Monday, March 17, 2014

Omaha World-Herald. March 13, 2014

Merger could save money

Douglas and Sarpy Counties, the heart of the metro Omaha area, account for more than a third of Nebraska’s people.

But Sarpy County’s growth over the past decade has at times outpaced the ability of public services to keep up.

So it was hardly a surprise when its local 911 service was found wanting.

What did surprise was the size of the gap that a 2013 World-Herald investigation discovered - that Douglas County 911 callers saw their emergency calls dispatched a full minute sooner than 911 callers in Sarpy.

Gaps that large can put lives at risk.

People who live in Papillion, Bellevue, La Vista and Gretna need timely access to the same quality of emergency communications that residents of Omaha and Douglas County enjoy. Sarpy County taxpayers pay taxes to receive good service.

The Sarpy County Board was smart to follow The World-Herald’s investigation with a study. As its facts pour in, they appear to tilt toward the benefits of a merger of emergency communication services with Douglas County.

There are now 20 million reasons to pursue a merger. That’s the estimated five-year savings for taxpayers in both counties that consolidation could bring, along with improved 911 service for Sarpy County, according to a draft report on a possible merger.

An earlier group found that merging the counties’ two 911 centers could save Douglas and Sarpy County taxpayers about $2 million a year. A merger also could prevent Sarpy from having to build a new $7.5 million communications center.

As often happens when merger talks get serious, some Sarpy employees are worried about their jobs. The hard work of public employees is always appreciated, but loyalty to them and their needs should not supersede loyalty to taxpayers. The first duty to taxpayers is always to provide the best service at the least possible cost.

The county’s 911 study identified several management challenges the Sarpy 911 center faces. Those won’t be cheap or easy to fix, not in a growing area. Among the paths forward the report identified, full merger makes the most sense.

Regardless, Sarpy County taxpayers face a choice: Pay more for a level of 911 service that could improve if officials address management shortcomings. Or pay less for the proven quality already enjoyed in Douglas County.

Seems like an easy answer, with Douglas and Sarpy counties already growing together in a number of ways. It makes sense for local governments to cooperate, especially when doing so is as good for public safety as it is for the public purse.


Lincoln Journal Star. March 10, 2014

Help on the way for guardians

Credit Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln for trying to mend a gaping hole in the safety net for vulnerable Nebraskans.

His bill to create a new Office of Public Guardian is sailing toward enactment with only final approval remaining before it becomes law.

The need for the new office was demonstrated dramatically late last year when an investigation by Auditor Mike Foley led to criminal charges against Judith Widener of Gering.

More theft charges were filed this month. Widener now faces nine felony and two misdemeanor counts of theft.

An investigation showed that Widener was serving as legal guardian for more than 600 people in 60 counties across the state.

At a preliminary hearing, Craig Kubicek of the state auditor’s office said that Widener had accepted money on behalf of dead state wards and had double-billed for services.

When the problems surfaced, Coash stepped up to say he would study options for improving Nebraska’s system. Under current law, courts appoint a guardian or conservator for someone who is incapable of making responsible decisions for himself or herself, and when there is no one willing or able to serve in that role.

Nebraska is the only state in the country without a central office of public guardian.

LB920, introduced by Coash, would create an office with a director, deputy director and up to 12 associate public guardians at a two-year cost estimated at $2.4 million. Each state guardian would be allowed to represent no more than 40 people.

The office also would provide training for members of the public who are appointed guardians.

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha introduced a similar bill in 2007 that faltered because of concerns on its cost. During debate on LB920, Lathrop said the need for a central office is growing as baby boomers age. Sometimes courts ask lawyers to volunteer as guardians, but the need is exceeding the supply of volunteers, he said.

Coash said that volunteers will still be needed after the new office is created, but that it would relieve some of the most immediate needs. The public guardians in the office would serve as a last resort, he said.

There’s no doubt that Nebraska’s present system leaves wards of the state vulnerable to abuse, fraud and theft.

The legislation put together by Coash, who made LB920 his priority bill, drew a variety of co-sponsors and overwhelming support. The lack of opposition this year is a credit to Coash’s legislative acumen and the need for reform exposed by Foley’s investigation. Final passage will help protect Nebraskans who need it the most.


The Grand Island Independent. March 12, 2014.

Public should give input on animal control changes

When Grand Island was just a speck on the map back in the late 1800s, the rapidly growing frontier town was a noisy, bustling place.

Animals were as pervasive as humans. Horses, donkeys and mules were essential to do the work and enable transportation. Goats, sheep, pigs, chickens, geese, turkeys and all manner of other poultry were an important part of subsistence and sustenance. Dogs and cats were as popular as pets then as now.

The day’s end then was announced by the yelping of coyotes and the barking of dogs. The town awoke to the crowing of roosters.

Fast forward 120 years or so and Grand Island remains a noisy place. Aside from the intrusion of the noise from 130 or more trains a day, the wail of sirens, loud mufflers and throbbing car stereos; barking dogs rank high on the list of city-living aggravations. The coyote’s yelp can no longer be heard above the din.

As the city contemplates updating more than 30 pages of city code related to animals, enforcement of dog owner violations, roaming cats and limits on chicken ownership are expected to dominate the conversation when the council takes up the matter on March 25. …

A proposal that would allow police or animal control officers to fine owners of barking dogs will be heard. A fine of $25 would be assessed for the first violation and $100 for the second. “Cat-at-large-violations” could also incur similar citations.

City ordinance currently allows four chickens per acre; however, few lots in the city are that big. A chicken scofflaw recently made headlines for having 100 chickens in his car. Dealing with this one offense severely taxed the limited resources of the animal shelter.

Animal abuse and neglect is a serious matter. The residents of the city would be well served by reasonable, enforceable laws designed to prevent repeat violations.

Stronger enforcement, like good fences, will also make better neighbors. We urge residents who have an interest in the proposed ordinance changes to attend the council’s study session on March 18 and the council meeting on March 25.


Scottsbluff Star-Herald. March 12, 2014

Keystone XL: If Canadian oil doesn’t move through the pipeline, it’ll move by rail

Like some Nebraskans, we’ve been troubled by aspects of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry heavy Canadian crude oil through our state toward refineries on the Gulf Coast.

We didn’t favor the original route, which crossed the fragile Sandhills, where a spill would threaten clean underground water, and advocated running the XL alongside another Nebraska pipeline operated by its parent company. We don’t like the idea of a foreign corporation using Nebraskans’ property without their consent. We believe job numbers cited for the project have been inflated, and we’re not convinced that the oil will do much to bring down American gas prices.

But most Nebraskans believe that the potential benefits outweigh the risks, including a majority of the state Legislature. Opponents counting on a recent court ruling to scuttle the project are likely to be disappointed. Attorney General Jon Bruning, who supports the pipeline, has appealed the ruling, which struck down a 2012 state law that gave routing authority for the pipeline in Nebraska to the governor. And as a Friday deadline for public comment on the proposal approaches, 34 Nebraska state senators have signed onto a letter urging federal officials to approve the project.

TransCanada Corp., the company that wants to build Keystone XL, needs approval from the Obama administration for the pipeline to cross the U.S.-Canada border. With the closing of the public comment period, federal agencies have 60 days to offer comments before the State Department weighs whether approval of the project is in the national interest. President Barack Obama recently said he will make a decision on the permit within “a couple of months.”

As opponents consider their remaining political options, they should recognize that the momentum of America’s economic interests, national energy policy and the marketplace is against them. While opposing the pipeline is useful for getting some citizens off the political sidelines, it can’t stop Canada from extracting the tar sands oil, and it won’t prevent that oil from eventually making its way into the world’s internal combustion engines.

In fact, the nation’s rail system is already stepping up to carry the crude where it’s needed. And that might be riskier to the environment than carrying it through a pipeline. A McClatchy Newspapers story carried in the Omaha World-Herald reports that the 830,000 barrels of heavy Canadian crude oil that would pass through Nebraska would require dilution with solvents in order to keep moving. The chemicals used to dilute the oil take up about two-thirds of the capacity of the pipeline used to carry it. Rail cars can carry the heavy oil without the other chemicals, removing much of the pipeline’s economic advantage. Trains move faster than pipeline oil. Railroads can expand their capacity without federal approval, and transportation and energy experts believe they will continue to do so.

“U.S. railroads moved 400,000 carloads of oil last year, according to industry estimates, up from fewer than 10,000 five years earlier,” said the report. That shows how world demand for oil will ensure that it gets extracted and moved to market whether Obama approves the pipeline or not.

The unspoken benefit of the pipeline for America is safety. Recent tragic derailments have shown how shipping fuels by train can go wrong. Meanwhile, Canada could elect to build a pipeline of its own or expand its rail capacity to the West Coast, exporting the oil to Asia, where it will continue to burn with all of the environmental impacts, such as global warming, and none of the benefits for American drivers or the economy.



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